Opinion: Tracking West Virginia’s recruiting in recent years
I’m a firm believer that you can tell a lot about the future by studying the past.
That’s true in everything from the stock market to football recruiting.
We started the Blue & Gold News in 1988, and I’ve closely covered each Mountaineer football recruiting class ever since. Besides the fact that it makes me old, it also means I’ve hopefully learned a thing or two along the way.
No matter who the coach, no matter what the league, West Virginia has rarely landed five-star prospects. Over the last 20 years, WVU has only signed five five-star recruits – Bruce Irvin, Tavon Austin, Noel Devine, Josh Jenkins and Jason Gwaltney. Big 12 rival Oklahoma had nearly as many five-stars in its class of 2019 (four) as the Mountaineers have had in the past two decades. But West Virginia has still managed to find football success without landing a ton of blue-chip recruits. WVU has been to a bowl game in 30 of the past 38 years, despite the fact its recruiting classes have never been ranked in the top 10.
West Virginia has been a consistent winner on the gridiron (a record of 298-172 since 1980) because it typically gets good prospects and develops them into better football players. The Mountaineers are usually at their best when they get a three- or four-star recruit, keep them for four or five years and develop them into a high-end college player. Thus judging West Virginia’s recruiting is much different than judging someone like Alabama, which signed 24 players this year who were either five- or four-star prospects. WVU signed two – defensive backs Dreshun Miller and Tykee Smith – who were each four-stars.
The Mountaineers haven’t proven they can compete with the Crimson Tide – other than Clemson, who has? – but they can still turn out good football teams with two key themes to its recruiting – retention and development, which actually go hand in hand. The more prospects who spend their entire career in WVU’s program, the better for the Mountaineers, because that also means West Virginia has more time to develop that athlete, rather than starting back to square one with a new guy every year or two.
Dana Holgorsen did add a different wrinkle into West Virginia’s recruiting in recent years by concentrating on all three branches of the transfer tree – grad, traditional and junior college. WVU used 30 percent of its scholarships in the past few classes on one form of transfer or another.
Neal Brown has now taken over the Mountaineer football program, and we’re still not certain if he’ll emphasize transfers as much as Holgorsen, though Brown’s very first recruit at West Virginia, Oklahoma grad transfer quarterback Austin Kendall, fit the old model.
Obviously we don’t know yet how WVU’s class of 2019 will perform once it gets to Morgantown, but a look at other recent classes can give us an indication of what it takes for a class to be successful.
2018 – WVU signed 25 players in last year’s class, and only one of those who actually arrived at West Virginia has left the program – transfer kicker Skyler Simcox, who was beaten out by Evan Staley. Grad transfer defensive linemen Kenny Bigelow and Jabril Robinson became instant starters, but each has now graduated. Jucos Joe Brown, Charlie Benton, Josh Norwood and Keith Washington all earned starting jobs as well, though the time for Brown and Benton was limited because of injuries. In addition, true freshmen Josh Chandler, Leddie Brown and Dante Stills became regular contributors. The other 14 true freshmen were redshirted, but each definitely could factor into the battle for playing time this coming season. With the likes of Trey Lowe, Briason Mays, T.J. Banks, James Gmiter, Sam James, Kwantel Raines and plenty of others, this class has a chance to be very productive over the next four years. Total signees – 25, Departed before eligibility expired – 1, Starters from class – 4, NFL players in the class – none yet, Top producers – Kenny Bigelow, Jabril Robinson, Josh Norwood, Keith Washington, Dante Stills, Leddie Brown Not worth the hype – Angus Davies (didn’t actually sign with the class), Overall class grade – A-
2017 – There were 24 signees in this class. Ten of those were early enrollees, and seven of those were junior college transfers, and three others were four-year transfers – Jovani Haskins, T.J. Simmons and Jack Allison. This class has been a mixed bag. Of the jucos, David Sills emerged as an All-American at receiver, and Hakeem Bailey, Dominique Maiden, Quondarius Qualls, Kelby Wickline and Isaiah Hardy all became solid contributors. But six of the 21 signees departed the program before they got to their second year – Jalen Harvey, Maverick Wolfley, Lamonte McDougle, Reggie Roberson and Collin Smith. Besides Sills, Kenny Robinson has emerged as a star from this class, but others like Jovani Haskins, Derrek Pitts, T.J. Simmons, Jack Allison, Tevin Bush, Exree Loe and Alec Sinkfield could soon join him in the starting lineup. Total signees – 24, Departed before eligibility expired – 6, Starters from class – 6, NFL players in the class – none yet, Top producers – David Sills, Ezekiel Rose, Derrek Pitts, Kenny Robinson Not worth the hype – Jalen Harvey, Lamonte McDougle, Reggie Roberson, Overall class grade – C
2016 – From this class of 27 signees, 22 of them are still on the team or as was the case for six of the seven jucos, have graduated. This group produced a lot of high end talent, many of whom are still major contributors. Juco safety Kzyir White, who is now with the Los Angeles Chargers, was the top recruit in this class, but Trevon Wesco, Reese Donahue, JoVanni Stewart, Marcus Simms, Dylan Tonkery, Toyous Avery, Elijah Battle, Justin Crawford, Mike Daniels, Martell Pettaway and Josh Sills all became starters. Five left the program (Jacquez Adams, Cody Saunders, Craig Smith, Steven Smothers and Jonn Young) for various reasons. Smothers, in particular, was a huge recruit but never got on the field and was gone within a year. Nine other members of this class are juniors-to-be who are still trying to earn regular roles. Total signees – 27, Departed before eligibility expired – 5, Starters from class – 12, NFL players in the class – 1 so far, Top producers – Reese Donahue, Kennedy McKoy, Marcus Simms, Dillon Tonkery, Josh Sills, Justin Crawford, Trevon Wesco, JoVanni Stewart, Kyzir White, Not worth the hype – Steven Smothers, Jonn Young Overall class lass grade –B
2015 – This 23-member class was feast or famine. It featured some of the best Mountaineers ever – David Sills in his first go-round, future All-American cornerback Rasul Douglas, wide receiver Gary Jennings, wide receiver Ka’Raun White, Big 12 defensive player of the year David Long and what will be a four-year starting offensive tackle in Colton McKivitz. But for all these home runs, there were a lot of strikeouts as well, as 12 members of this class left the program before their careers were completed. Three of those – wide receiver Jovon Durante, defensive linemen Adam Shuler and center Matt Jones – were one-time starters at WVU but eventually transferred. Of the 17 high schoolers who came to WVU as part of this class, three have used up their eligibility (Sills, Jennings and Long), and just three are left and will be returning this season as fifth-year seniors (McKivitz, Stone Wolfley and Jordan Adams). Total signees – 23, Departed before eligibility expired – 12, Starters from class – 10, NFL players in the class – 1 so far, Top producers – Rasul Douglas, Gary Jennings, David Long, Colton McKivitz, Ka’Raun White, Not worth the hype – Tyrek Cole, Jovon Durante, Adam Shuler Overall class lass grade – B
2014 – The last of this 21-member class has now cycled through. Yodny Cajuste, Dravon Henry (he became Askew-Henry after arriving at WVU) and William Crest were the only three that made it to the 2018 season as fifth-year seniors. Fourteen of the 21 were gone well before their graduation dates. Jucos Skyler Howard, Edward Muldrow and Keishawn Richardson each became a solid contributor. Cajuste, Askew-Henry and Howard were easily the most significant players in what otherwise was a very poor class. The saving grace was when Will Grier transferred to WVU in 2016, and thus became a fifth-year senior at the same time as Cajuste, Crest and Askew-Henry. Total signees – 23, Departed before eligibility expired – 14, Starters from class – 5, NFL players in the class – 0 so far, Top producers – Skyler Howard, Yodny Cajuste, Dravon Askew-Henry, Not worth the hype – Dontae Angus, Lamar Parker, Donte Thomas-Williams, Overall class lass grade – D+